How departing leaders can pass along their wisdom to employees – Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

From Harvard Business Review

Earlier this spring I had the chance to witness two of the “farewell talks” that Ed Catmull gave to the people of Pixar. Catmull, the company’s cofounder and long-time leader (and also president of Disney Animation Studios since the Disney acquisition of Pixar over a decade ago) had announced his retirement in late 2018. He chose to spend his last day on Pixar’s Emeryville campus not being celebrated by his colleagues but, instead, sharing thoughts about the challenges they would face in the years to come.

Each “farewell talk” was a separate, hour-long session with a different team in the company, but the content wasn’t tailored to specific departments. Catmull shared — over and over again — what he believed the whole company should be thinking about as it looks ahead.

Catmull has always been unusually reflective about the challenges of leading creative organizations, and generous in sharing the practices he finds effective. In his 2014 book Creativity, Inc. (which he’s now updating with new learnings), for example, he shares useful insights and learnings aimed at helping other leaders succeed. In his farewell talks, he showed the same level of thoughtfulness. He decided to:

Make the sessions inclusive. It’s not uncommon for departing CEOs to have transitional talks with their top teams. But how many consider it important to talk with every team in the company? Catmull talked to everyone, including hundreds of people who had never sat in meetings focused on high-level strategic issues — but whose efforts make Pixar films possible. As a result, his parting act was immensely unifying.

Keep it intimate. With so many people to connect with, Catmull made the sensible decision to do many talks. Each talk, therefore, was intimate enough to create a conversational atmosphere. He acknowledged that, since his basic message was consistent, he could have simply addressed the company as whole. But as well as making it more meaningful for everyone, having smaller groups allowed him to sense his colleagues’ reactions. “My talks evolved,” he told me, “as I learned what people responded to.”

Pose questions rather than offer answers. Catmull started out drafting his talks around what he saw as Pixar’s “tentpole” issues — technology leadership, storytelling excellence, and more. But along the way, he found himself “reframing those tentpoles as questions.” I’ve seen this work well in other settings. It’s as simple as taking an issue like “changing consumer behavior” and converting it into a question: “What will motivate customers to buy our products five years from now?” Catmull made this issue-to-question switch because he knew it would be more engaging for his audience (“I found questions were much more memorable,” he says) and because his natural instinct is to show humility in the face of challenges. He didn’t want to proclaim solutions. He wanted to prompt his colleagues to think creatively about big strategic issues. He put vital questions on the table, “even if they couldn’t be readily answered.”

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.

Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and ultimately deliver positive, powerful results. 

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